By Megan Poinski
The state’s probation officers are overworked and stretched too thin, making their vital public safety role more difficult to fulfill, says the head of the union for parole and probation workers.
Probation officers check in with offenders who are not in prison, making sure they are abiding by the law, staying in the area and participating in any court-ordered rehabilitative programs. Rai Douglas, the president of the union representing them – a division of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — said that there are too many offenders, and not enough probation officers to supervise them.
Division of Parole and Probation staff indicated in a critical 2009 report by the Justice Policy Institute that they were hoping to bring caseloads down to about 50 per officer. According to the most recent StateStat reports on Parole and Probation, the numbers are nowhere close to that. Probation officers in St. Mary’s County handle an average of 256 cases each. Charles County officers handle an average of 242 cases apiece. In Prince George’s County, each officer has an average of 167 cases, and each officer has about 166 in Frederick County.
“We are trying to cope with an overburdened system,” Douglas said. “We are trying to cope with a system that is now much more chaotic than I have seen in my entire 25-year career.”
Top Parole and Probation officials agree that agents handle many cases, but argue that frequent training academies and new technologies – like computerized reporting kiosks – are constantly lowering that workload for the agents. In fact, said Acting Parole and Probation Director Patricia Vale, it would be inaccurate to say there are “too few” agents now.
“There is a high turnover rate, so we have modified the way we have done training academies,” she said. There are about four training academies each year, which teach people how to do the job as a probation officer and give them on-the-job training. Academies last about 10 weeks.
The stress factor
Being a probation officer is not easy.
Douglas has done been one his entire career. He said there are a wide variety of people he and other officers must check up on.
Some of them are low-level offenders, while others are violent criminals or drug dealers. Many people don’t understand the public safety function that probation officers play, he said. Probation officers work hard to make sure that the rehabilitating criminals in the community stay on the right path, and don’t go on to commit more crimes.
“A lot of time, we’re overlooked by the public,” Douglas said. “Too often, we’re just viewed as social workers.”
More research into psychology and criminal justice has called for more paperwork and more active contact with some offenders.
In the last few years of budget cuts and furloughs, officers have seen their workloads increase as their colleagues retired – or just got tired of working so hard.
“We are constantly under pressure,” Douglas said. “What we do is constantly being audited. We have a stressed out staff, and a lot of people can retire. There is a great fear that there may be a mass exodus.”
With officer burnout getting so high, Douglas said, those who are left end up getting larger caseloads. And adding to that are staffing shortages in other vital parts of probation offices. Douglas said that in some counties, probation officers have had to take on tasks like covering the phones for secretaries, or filling in for lab techs.
“By the time when agents are caught up with paperwork, spreadsheets and everything, you realize that you haven’t seen someone for three months or four months,” Douglas said.
William Burrell, a retired probation supervisor from New Jersey and current chairman of the editorial committee for the American Probation and Parole Association, said that it is easy for parole to get overlooked and forgotten by the government. The public – as well as government officials – tend to have a “fuzzy idea” of what they do because probation’s work is not as visible.
“There is not a clear public vision of the value that they contribute to the community. Support for probation is soft,” Burrell said. “And those without strong public support are more likely to be cut.”
What is the right caseload?
Burrell said that determining the right caseload size is the biggest challenge for the probation sector nationwide.
There is no one “right” caseload for probation departments, he said. As he wrote in his 2007 issue paper on caseload sizes for the APPA, the “right” caseload depends on the type of cases and offenders, the orders from the sentencing judge, and the characteristics of the jurisdiction.
Nonviolent offenders need less supervision than those who committed violent crimes. And probation officers in more urban areas might need to provide fewer services than those in rural areas. Offenders in Baltimore may be able to attend group programs to help with rehabilitation, Burrell said. Those programs may not be available – but just as needed by some offenders – in Western Maryland.
“The probation officer may be the primary provider of services,” he said. “In a rural area, all offenders may demand more time.”
Burrell said that to determine the right caseload to be effective and reduce probation officers’ stress, separating offenders by their threat level has often helped. People who pose a lower public threat tend to need less attention from probation officers.
Threat level shifts
The Division of Parole and Probation last month unveiled a new kiosk system intended to reduce the workload for probation officers dealing with low-threat offenders.
Any offender can use the electronic kiosks, which were purchased for every parole and probation office in the state with a $440,000 federal grant. Instead of having a face-to-face or telephone meeting with a probation officer, an offender can visit a kiosk, have his or her handprint scanned, and answer a simple series of questions.
The kiosks do not replace probation officer contact, said Parole and Probation spokesman Mark Vernarelli.
“It makes it easier for officers and offenders,” Vernarelli said. …”It decreases some of the workload automatically.”
The kiosks have been in use in some format throughout the state since last year. The answers are reviewed to ensure that the offenders are telling the truth in their questionnaires.
There are also several smaller task forces of probation officers who handle certain kinds of more violent offenders. The Violence Prevention Initiative more closely monitors some of the most violent and at-risk offenders.
While the program gives these offenders more attention, Douglas said it comes at the cost of fewer officers to do the rest of the monitoring – increasing work and stress for other officers.
There is no easy fix for the probation caseload problem, Burrell said.
Vale and Vernarelli said that the department is working to solve it two ways. First, innovative methods like the kiosks reduce the amount of time officers need to spend doing more routine check-ins. But running more training academies also helps to replenish the ranks. After new probation officers graduate, they are assigned to the county that most needs more people, meaning that help is spread throughout the state.
“I think as we bring more agents on board, it’s going to lessen the strain on existing officers where the caseload is larger,” Vale said.
Vale and union members are also meeting together as a task force to try to address the problem of setting proper caseloads. A survey has recently been sent out to probation officers to start determining how things need to be changed, Douglas said.
But Douglas has another solution that can temporarily solve staff shortages that overburden probation officers. Currently, when probation officers retire, they are stripped of all authority to do part-time probation work. Douglas thinks that legislatively creating a reserve retired agents’ corps of people who can fill in the gaps while new officers are trained would help provide immediate relief to overworked officers.
Douglas has not presented his idea to anyone in the General Assembly, but plans to bring it up for a coming session.
“I’m trying to get the legislation in so that we don’t box ourselves into a corner,” he said. “We need to be able to deal with any crisis that is coming up.”